On Saving Lots of Money in Korea

I miss my old Korean neighborhood, the Gok.

I miss my old Korean neighborhood, the Gok.

About one year ago, I wrote a post titled “On Not Saving Any Money in Korea.” I encourage you to check it out for a reality check if you are currently considering moving abroad to do TEFL, currently living in South Korea as an English teacher, or interested in my bank account. Sorry, phishers. There’s only a screenshot without any info.

The post is almost wholly negative. I griped about the cost of living in South Korea. I griped about the possible inflation of saving possibilities by TEFL recruiters. I griped about how expensive the visa process was. I griped about my projection that I would only save about $2400 total during my year in Korea.

And guess what? I was wrong. Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.

I miss my old apartment, too!

I miss my old apartment, too!

I blame my apparent lack of maths skills for the miscalculations, but there are other factors at work. As it happens, that post is one of the most-read ones on this blog. It consistently shows up in the top ten posts on the left there, and it seems that quite a few people are interested in the topic. In the interest of not being one of the many (MANY) out of date TEFL in Korea blogs out there silently sabotaging potential teachers’ dreams with incorrect and scary-sounding information, I want to correct that post with this one.

Some of what I wrote last July is true. Exchange rates are generally shitty, no matter which end I find myself on (I’m finding this to be especially true as I prepare to move to the UK for graduate school, and my tuition keeps fluctuating literally thousands of dollars based on the ups and downs of the market.). The global economy is still getting dragged through the mud somewhat, don’t let the talking heads deceive you. I still have semi-expensive tastes in food and clothing. And above all, saving money is hard work, no matter where one happens to find themselves. But the crux of the article, that it is difficult/impossible to save money in Korea while teaching is flat false.

At the end of my time in Korea, I had a little over $11,500 in the bank.

Yeah, that’s a shitload of money. My calculations were off by almost 500%, if I did my maths correctly this time. I was able to put away almost $7,000 in the months after I told the internet I wasn’t saving any money in Korea. Almost exactly the $1000 a month promised by my recruiter before I came over. Whoops. Perceptions can be wrong!

I miss those kiddos most of all!

I miss those kiddos most of all!

After I completed my contract, I received even more cash injections into my bank account. I got $4,000 in severance and my final paycheck (I left just after we’d all been working our asses off in the Winter Intensive schedule and got a little overtime). Last, but certainly not least, I got my pension money back at the end on March. Already in India for over a month, I suddenly saw $1,800 show up in my bank account.

Furthermore, I paid almost no taxes this year. Because I earned almost all my income in Korea for 2012 and the US has awesome tax treaties with the ROK, I was exempt from paying federal and state taxes. I paid taxes in Korea (around 3% of my income…that is ridiculously low), but I got to write off everything else as non-taxable income. US citizens who teach in Korea for two years or less are able to take advantage of this kickback. It’s a pretty huge one.

And now, it looks like at the end of the summer I will have almost exactly that $8,000 I wanted in the bank from the original post. Even with traveling in India for 2 months. Even with a month in England. Even though I’m only working part-time this summer.

Shit! My financial situation turned out way better than predicted!

I may need to keep this in mind as I as I lay awake at night regularly worrying about graduate school finances and apply for an exorbitant amount of loan money. Hmm.

Despite the awesomeness of my finances post-Korea, a few words of caution. The over-arching theme of that July 2012 post remains important; don’t make the experience of living in Korea suffer for the hypothetical payoff of traveling or graduate school after the contract ends.The Incredibull India experience certainly brought that home.

Far too many teachers I met in Korea spent a lot of time indoors playing MMORPGs and eating instant noodles as their only sustenance. Surprisingly many of these folks eventually ended up staying on for multiple years after the initial drive to travel turned into a desire to plant roots, meaning that the fabled travel for which they were sacrificing just never happened. Then again, everyone has their own financial preferences and circumstances. I know of several teachers in Korea who had moved abroad in large part to afford health insurance, or to pay off student loans. It would be harder to save as much as I did if those were concerns.

Circumstances also change. Last July, I thought I’d be living in the States again for graduate school. After the application process went slightly differently than planned, I’m moving abroad again (and getting a visa AGAIN). I’m also in a long-term committed relationship, which was in its infancy last summer. We can share resources and effort, and I’m not in this alone. My finances have to adjust to the new realities that come up. DSCN1994

Bottom line: It is definitely possible to save a lot of money teaching in Korea. Don’t let my old, mathematically-inaccurate, and pessimistic article discourage you.

As a final note: I am always thrilled to talk to those who want to get a TEFL career started, who want to travel more, or who want to study abroad. It’s part of my job, but it’s also my passion. Contact me today with your questions. I promise to get back to you quickly.

On Not Saving Any Money in Korea

Korean-style Caprese Salad. made with tomatoes, mozzarella, and sesame leaves. I miss eating fresh, good food every day instead of a couple times per week.

WARNING: This post is mathematically-inaccurate, slightly boring, and generally detrimental to your TEFL soul and mine. Do yourself a favour and read this new shiny post instead (from 2013!)

From the website of my recruiter, the agency that facilitated my move to Korea:

“We know some single people who live on about $300 USD a month and others who push it easily over $1000 USD per month.  It depends on how thrifty you are and how often you go out.  $600 USD is pretty reasonable for a single person. This allows for dinners, drinks, nights out, movies, small weekend trips, etc… “

With my salary and the adjustment for the exchange rate, that should have meant about $1000 in savings for each month. Ha. Ha.

I have managed to save a grand total of $828.27 in five months in Korea. My salary is higher than any I’ve had before, I have benefits like health insurance that I’ve never independently obtained before, and I don’t even pay rent! I am living on my own and out of my parents’ basement, which is a lot better than I was able to do back in Colorado. I only have to work five days a week instead of seven. This month, I managed to finally pay off my credit card expenses for the visa process and my taxes.

Considering the dire straits many in my generation find themselves in, these should be financial achievements.

And yet my goals for Korea in terms of money are on the rocks, as the cost of living appears to be almost twice what my recruiter assumes it will be. Add to that the shitty turn the exchange rate has taken in the time I’ve been here, and instead of sending home 800 USD per month, I sent $674 this month. And even with a budget of 800.000 KRW per month, or 200.000 per week, I’ve found it hard to save anything. This month and last, I’ve decided to go a little hungry and skip eating lunch for at least the week leading up to payday rather than spend my savings.

What is happening here?

Part of it is the global economy. Everything is so volitile these days that the exchange rates on most currencies are all over the place.

Part of it is misinformation. People are basing their moving to Korea on information from before the economic crisis really hit the fan in 2008, and a lot of the teachers I know refer to things in dollars as opposed to KRW. Recruiting companies may exaggerate without knowing the true cost of living, or on purpose to attract teachers. If I stay on track, I will save about $2400 while in Korea. Certainly not nothing, but certainly less than the $8,000 I wanted to save for travel and graduate school.

Part of it is me. I like to think I’m a fairly thrifty person. I don’t buy a lot of clothes, makeup, or anything else. I spend the most money on food, and I’ll admit I’m a bit of a food snob. I can’t subsist on bags of frozen chicken purchased on G Market. I prefer whole wheat pasta to instant noodles. I like to go to the sauna each week. It’s nice to have a few beers every weekend. All of those things are normal, and supposedly a part of the “reasonable” $600 budget my recruiters talked about. And yet, the 800.000 won (which incidentally is currently worth only $705 this month) I budget is consistently not enough.

I stress about money all the time here. It feels like I’m always putting things off until my next paycheck. Recently, I’ve had to remind myself that I have to eat…that I have to be clothed. Buying essentials like clothes and food shouldn’t make me feel guilty.

Am I doing something wrong here? A lot of people manage to get by on very little in Korea and use the extra to pay off student loans or save. Yet every month I get into this crush, and feel like I can’t even buy food because if I have to dip into savings to do so, I’m failing. I wanted so much to be able to travel again after this year was up, but it’s looking less and less likely.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from travel is how to change my plans to suit circumstances. Travel also reduces a person to the five basics in life (Toilet, Food, Shelter, Transport, Water). I’ve tested my limits many times, leaving me with a more informed view on just how hungry it is OK to be and just how far I can stretch a dollar.

Like I said in the previous post, I am not traveling in Korea. If I skrimp by buying frozen chicken on GMarket and stop spending any money at all on activities within Korea with an eye toward some hypothetical future trip, I’m not really living here. I would miss out on the amazing things like staying up until dawn listening to classical music with friends and wearing the Korean version of a rally cap at a baseball game.

…which is this inflated trash bag, apparently.

Living in the my present, in Korea, and actually living…that’s my real goal. And if I can’t save any money here while doing that, then it is time that goal changed.

The Job Interview Merry-Go-Round

Beginning Skype Interview Face

Second interview today. Sixth interview in four days. One offer to teach in South Korea. No call backs from part time jobs to fund my broke-ass backpacker lifestyle in the meantime. Two over Skype, one over the phone, and three in person.

I feel as though I’m riding the interview merry-go-round. It’s a strange place, filled with questions that seem more and more similar with each passing interview. That’s mildly remarkable, given that I’ve interviewed for four different industries over the last week. When someone is trained to interview, are they given the same questions despite differences in the industry?

“What were your reasons for leaving your last job?” 


When one adds the wonder of Skype to the mix, it becomes even more of a strange interview dance. I’ve found it hard to feed off the other person’s energy and get excited about a question when some part of me knows that I am sitting in my house, talking to a computer. My usual techniques of reading body language and tone of voice are greatly inhibited by the tiny, fuzzy, at times choppy image on the screen. I’ve realized that I kind of suck at Skype interviews.

What is your philosophy on education/coffee/fashion/bagging groceries?

It is great practice, I suppose. Since the job market is a little bit tough these days (did I say a little bit? I meant a lotta bit. Even with a college degree and two years of experience, I can’t get hired at a coffee shop), interviewers seem to be much more picky than in the past. Their interviewing styles and respect for the interviewee’s situation seem to be a different, perhaps because they know that they can afford to be choosy if 40 applicants will show up for one part-time position.

Are you comfortable with a company that prohibits unionization?

The selectivity of the interview process at times begins to feel like the employers are playing games with me. I’ve begun to second-guess myself and wonder where I made a mistake when they fail to call me back after what felt like a great interview. Was I overdressed or underdressed? When she gave me that business card, was that a hint that the first person to call would get the position? Was my tone too professional, or not professional enough? Was it underqualification, or overqualification?

And who the hell interviews a candidate in a dirty hoodie, looking hung the hell over?

We’ll call you in two to four weeks, unless we fill the position before then.

On the upside, if we ever do get out of the Great Recession and job hunting becomes easier, I’ll be an interviewing equivalent of a martial arts sensei. Or a Skype Whisperer. Eventually, I have to get some kind of position. It’s the Holidays, and retail needs help. Right? I can’t move to South Korea next year in my current incredibroke state.

If not, consider this six steps closer to me taking a GreyHound to Occupy Wall Street and giving into unemployment for at least a few more months.

Update: I got hired at an eyeglasses shop at the Flatirons Mall. Not hugely resume-building, but a job nonetheless! No longer unemployed!

How to Afford to Travel Like A…Broke…Backpacker…

“So, uh…how is that working financially?”

It’s the question I dread every time I tell someone about my latest transcontinental plans. The barely-veiled under questions are “How can you possibly afford to travel so much?” followed by “Why can’t you just be broke like the rest of us?”

Travel is expensive, let’s not parse words. It eats up savings and leaves my bank account coughing and sputtering. In 2011, I will spend eight months on the road. It will be the most money I’ve ever spent.

In one month, I’ll be on a plane out of the country again. I avoided telling anyone in the program I recently finished until I absolutely had to, because it causes more problems than I wanted to bring up. Even amongst experienced travelers, the simple fact that I can continue after living abroad for six months is fodder for conflict.

So how did I do it?

1)   I lived at my parents’ house for six months. The money saved on rent alone was enough to put away significant funds for travel. In my area, one pays at least $500 a month for a shared apartment, without utilities or food. Total saved over six months: $3000.

2)   I didn’t go out much. Or…at all. Or I went to the only bar in town with a $1 a shot happy hour. I reigned in my partying side quite a bit, and saved at least $25 a week compared with the summer before I seriously began planning to move to South America. Total saved over six months: $600.

3)   I started selling my clothes, jewelry, and generally getting rid of all my worldly possessions. Total earned over six months: $300

4)   I mooched. A lot. Usually only from food people brought to work to share. And my parents’ cabinets. Total saved over six months: Not sure. Hard to put a price on leftover carrot cake.

And the biggest one…

5)   I put a price on each paycheck that came in. I allowed myself $100 from each paycheck for food, unexpected expenses, and fun. That’s all. When it’s gone, it’s gone. The rest had to go into savings. And I told people about it, so I felt accountable.

Once I’m on the road, I drink very little. I stay in cheap, sometimes sketchy places. I ride local trains and busses. I survive on bread, cheese, and art. It’s not like I’m staying in a five-star hotel and dining on caviar every night.

The truth is, it isn’t easy to save for travel. It takes sacrifice. I have never owned a car. Or a house. Or a dog. I had to give up stability in exchange for the amazing opportunities to see the world. I realize that taking the extreme steps that I’ve gone to are not possible for some people, but it starts with the mentality that I am willing to sacrifice to be able to travel. And even if it starts with a morning Starbucks being swapped for homemade tea, that small step will make a difference eventually.

And don’t let anyone get confused. I am going to be incredibroke by the end of this year. To the point that I will have to take whatever job comes my way first.

But it will be completely worth it.